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  Year After Bias' Death, Some Unlearned Lessons

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
June 19, 1987

During those horrifying, agonizing hours and days after Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication one year ago today, probably every athlete who ever snorted, injected or ingested even the slightest bit of cocaine just once was frightened into thinking, "That's it. No more for me."

One year ago this morning, about five hours after Bias died, his former high school coach Bob Wagner said, hopefully, "A lot of people grew up today."

Maybe. But a lot didn't. Don Rogers of the Cleveland Browns certainly didn't, and like Bias, died. So did Jeep Jackson, a basketball player at Texas El-Paso.

Dwight Gooden didn't pay attention, nor did Walter Davis. They're both alive, hoping to beat their problem. Derrick Fenner, who lived almost down the street from Bias, faces a murder charge in what police call a drug-related shooting. Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins of the Houston Rockets have been suspended, perhaps for life, from the National Basketball Association.

It shocked and scared everybody when Len Bias, 6 feet 8, body of granite, keeled over and died after snorting cocaine that fateful morning in the University of Maryland's Washington Hall.

Lonise Bias, Len's mother, said she was convinced her son didn't die in vain. And most probably he didn't. Somewhere, perhaps in one of the large, spellbound audiences Lonise Bias addressed over the past year, there must have been someone who got scared enough to save his or her own life.

Don't we have to assume we are all a bit wiser because of Bias? Don't we have to assume that his cocaine-induced death discouraged a few? Don't we have to assume that it was a bigger deterrent than Magic Johnson and a bunch of grade schoolers "saying no" right after a beer commerical during a timeout in basketball games?

One hopes that, since it had to happen, it helped somebody. But you're really not sure. If Rogers, at his bachelor party, could die a similar death as Bias' just eight days later, you have to wonder how many people said, as Bias did, "Well, it won't happen to me."

For most, sadly, the memory of the night and the man has faded. Like the car wreck you pass on the way home. You say to yourself you'll wear a seat belt from this day on, but by the end of the week it's uncomfortable.

Life goes on. The first anniversary of Len Bias' death is nothing if not melancholy.

Maryland has not been able to get back to business as usual, and it might be that way for some time. If it isn't a football coach resigning partially because he thinks the fallout is hurting his program, it's the trial of a man who was in the room with Bias that morning, or people coming down on Bias' former coach, Lefty Driesell, whose ideas and words so often are tangled.

The perception of a school, its former coach, its basketball team, and even Bias all have changed so much in a year. A year ago, Maryland's basketball team was coming off a rousing end to the season, and good players were thought to be returning. The football team had won nine games and had no reason to think it was about to have its worst season in five years.

A year ago, Boston Celtics star Larry Bird -- when told Bias had died -- called it "the cruelest thing I've ever heard." But only 10 days ago, when his would-be teammates were trying to stay alive in the NBA championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Bird said, "I would hate for him to come into this situation if he were on {cocaine} because then, that might have been the biggest blow that we couldn't overcome. . . . A guy like that could have come here and destroyed our team if he was on cocaine."

The people who own and run NBA teams apparently must feel the same way, considering the new battery of tests that clubs have put prospective first-round draft choices through in recent weeks. One agent, who represents several prominent NBA players, said Bias' death has prompted teams to start deep research into a player's background and personality. And that information could play a major role in Monday's draft.

There's a basketball court in Rockville on which someone the day after Bias died painted on the backboards and court: "Len Bias Lives Forever." The kids play for hours a day, the ball hitting the yellow paint.

A year later, the words remain. One wonders if they are read.

© 1987 The Washington Post Company

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